Hilda Placencia, a special education teacher at West Covina Unified School District, won a spot to visit the Disney parks through the Disney 100 Teacher Contest. Of the 100 teachers who won the contest, Placencia was the only Latina teacher who made the cut and won a trip to the Disneyland Resort.
“I didn’t even realize I was the only Latina until my sister pointed it out on the list of winners,” Placencia said. “It kind of makes me feel sad, just because I know there are so many of us [Latinos] out there who are more deserving than me.”
Placencia was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, making her a first-generation immigrant child. At the age of two, she immigrated to California, and lived in Montebello for the next 26 years.
In 2016, she received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from California State University, Northridge, and became a Behavior Analysis therapist and an instructional assistant. It was then that Placencia was inspired to become a special education teacher for transitional kindergarten and kindergarten.
“When I was in the instructional aide setting, I saw all the work that goes behind special education, like the modifications, accommodations, and figuring out your own curriculum,” said Placencia. “So when I saw how the teachers I was working with put so much effort into their job to ensure the students were well taken care of, it really inspired me to want to do that as well.”
Along with inspiration from her work as an instructional aide, she also discovered inspiration in her own home. Her grandmother had a physical disability and received special education at a young age. Placencia says her grandmother would tell her about her favorite teacher and how much she appreciated all the help she received.
“I thought that I could give back to my society and grandma to create a learning environment that my grandma appreciated so much,” Placencia said.
Placencia first heard about Disney’s 100 Teacher Contest in a post on the Disney Imagination Campus’ Instagram page. Disney Imagination Campus (DIC) is a branch of the Walt Disney Company that provides educators with the tools to provide an enriching learning environment for students nationwide.
The contest was announced in early December 2022 to go along with the Walt Disney Company’s 100th anniversary. The contest encouraged elementary, middle and high school teachers from across the country to enter for a chance to win a four-day trip to the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California. The teachers would attend workshops at the Disney Imagination Campus that “inspire teachers’ creativity while celebrating their amazing accomplishments.”
To enter, teachers submitted an essay on how they exhibited their values of imagination and creativity and how they encouraged those values in their classrooms. As Placencia is a huge Disney fan, her colleagues tagged her in the original post announcing the contest.
“She was a factor in my success as a first-year teacher, where I was extremely overwhelmed and confused on a lot of aspects of our job, but Placencia never hesitated to help me with whatever I needed help with,” said Desirae Aguayo, a special education teacher at West Covina Unified School District. “I think her selflessness should be rewarded. She is great with her kids, and I know how much she loves Disney, so it was the perfect opportunity for her.”
Placencia quickly submitted her essay and eagerly awaited a response. Then, in early April, she was contacted by DIC, saying she was a potential winner. Upon contacting West Covina Unified School District, DIC verified Placencia as a teacher in the district.
On May 1, DIC announced the contest winners in an article in Disneyland Resort News. With over 7,900 applicants across 50 states, Disney recognized 100 teachers that shared the magic and imagination of Walt Disney in their classrooms.
“I didn’t believe it,” said Placencia. “I’m not the type of teacher who should be winning something like this. There are so many amazing teachers out there who deserve it, so I was in shock the whole time.”
On May 4, Placencia arrived at the Disneyland Resort, where she was told how the weekend would play out. The next day, she attended DIC’s workshop sessions led by Disney leaders and Imagineers, with curriculums involving science, technology, and performing arts. That night, she was a part of the cavalcade down Main Street, U.S.A. On May 6, Placencia and the other teachers could get a backstage look at how the Disney parks run their parks, seeing how some of the rides or attractions operate and getting an up-close experience of how the fireworks show works. On the final day, the teachers were able to explore the parks on their own.
After the weekend, Placencia and her sister decided to look at the list of winners. The two didn’t find another Latino who had experienced the weekend with her. They later went to YouTube to see a video of the travelcade, but couldn’t find another Latino.
“It makes me sad, just because I know there’s so many of us out there that deserve the appreciation Disney gave me,” Placencia said. “The odds are stacked against us, and I think it’s time for us to get the recognition we deserve.”
According to Pew Research, about 79% of teachers identified as non-Hispanic during the 2017-2018 school year. Hispanics only made up 7% of the teacher population.
Placencia always supports her students and tells them “to reach for the stars.” She firmly supports people’s efforts to give it their all and stand against the norm, a mindset similar to Disney’s, promoting creativity, imagination and magic among its fans.
“I do think in order for Latinos or Mexicans to be able to get these awards, we have to show we are capable,” said Placencia. “Regardless of where we come from, we can do it, and we will do it.”